Mormon Artist

Dan McDonald

Originally from Boise, Idaho, Dan McDonald grew up playing music and studying the humanities. In 2003, he graduated from BYU with a BA in French and BFA in Sculpture, and in 2006 he finished an MFA in Fine Arts at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. Basing many of his pieces on themes surrounding his religious and cultural upbringing, Dan works in bronze, steel, plastics, video, and any other material or media necessary to create narratives that display the complexities of paradox and the irresponsibility of manipulation. Dan is presently an assistant professor over sculpture and 3D design at Ashland University in Ohio. Website

Why do you do installation art instead of commercial artwork?

I guess the reality is that I have no problem selling my work if people want to buy my work, but most of it is much too large to be practical in a home. If it was going to go in a yard somewhere, that would make some sense, but most of what I make is interior work. When I think of making a piece, it usually starts with some ideas just in the back of my mind. But when I’m offered a space to put a piece into, I make the piece to fit into that space, and those spaces are generally empty, so I fill those spaces. It’s not very practical for most people [consumers].

There are some of my undergraduate pieces that found their way to some of the buildings in Downtown Provo and I’m happy they still have a life–that they are available to be viewed by the public–but they were not commercial ventures. Their being where they are is a result of grassroots efforts to add artworks to the downtown area and a desire to be a part of that.

Occasionally I make pieces that go outside. They have to be weatherproof, they’ve got hold up to different elements. And those pieces occasionally I’ve sold—there’s one on a campus in South Dakota that was made that way. But generally I don’t like worrying about those kinds of things—how much wind is going to hit it, what the rain is going to do to it, those sorts of things—and because I don’t include that as a challenge in each piece, most of my pieces are meant to go into a gallery space, and those gallery spaces generally function as a place to showcase artwork rather than as a commercial venture. This hasn’t always been the case; however, most of the pieces I make now are just a little too big.


So when you make a piece, does a gallery contact you and give you a space to work in?

It depends on what the situation is. I have a significant show coming up in Cleveland this next year and it’s all based on an application process. There will be a call for artists and I send in my work—a small portfolio, an artist statement, those sorts of things—and then they are reviewed by either a panel of jurists or just one juror. From the many applications, they then pick the artists they want to have exhibit their work. The show in Cleveland will be up for about two months and I’ve been given a space to work with. I don’t have to use any of the work that I presented to them, I just need to now fill the space. They saw my work, thought it was of high enough quality, and now they want to see what I can do with the space. That’s one way it’s done. That’s the ideal way, for me.

But that’s not usually how it works. Generally there will be some show at a local gallery or a national gallery or museum. They’ll put out a call for entries and I will just send in a piece I think might fit in the space that they have and either they pick it or they don’t. But the big difference for me is that this isn’t how I make my money, so I don’t have to worry about whether or not people will buy it. I just have to worry about whether they like it. That’s a positive side to having a position as a professor. But then again, I hardly have any time to make work. So it’s frustrating in that regard.


How did your interest in art develop as you were growing up?

I entered little drawing contests when I was younger and I assumed it was something I could do. I won a drawing contest in Idaho, won a hundred bucks, thought I was king of the world, that sort of thing. And I took classes in junior high school and later in high school. With summer school I finished most of the necessary classes early, allowing me to just take art classes and music classes for my last semester. But I was still one of those seemingly practical people who bought into the idea that art wasn’t a career and I needed to find something I could do to make money, and so I figured I’d go into architecture.

I took three or four university courses in architecture before going on my mission and while I was on my mission I always told people that I studied architecture. It sounded cool in French. So I rode that for a little while, but when I got back to school I was thinking I should check out as many classes as possible—foolishly I averaged 30 credit hours a semester my first year back, just testing out of classes and then getting the bill for it. So I took all these history classes and music classes and music ed classes and of course I tested out of all my French classes and I felt I should take some more because I’d worked hard at trying to speak well and figured I should keep it up. I realized I really enjoyed it. Helping teach French in the high schools, I thought that maybe teaching French would be my calling and I started studying French full-time. That was my new-chosen path and I realized the college I was at didn’t have enough courses to take so that I could graduate in a timely manner, so I looked to transfer to BYU.

I did that; I went there and almost finished, met my wife to be, got married, and had an opportunity to work in France for about a year. And that was the moment when BYU decided to give me a scholarship for having decent grades. I had six credits left for my French degree and BYU said I’d have to take twelve credits to get the scholarship. I filled up the other six credits with art classes, something I hadn’t really studied since ’96, and here it was, almost ten years later. I took those classes and realized teaching French was quite possibly not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I finished the French degree and stuck around for another year and got the art degree. I loved it, learned as much as I could, graduated, and then found I was stuck in the same position I would have been in with the French degree. I hadn’t been to grad school, I didn’t have a teaching certificate, and I had few job opportunities in the field, so I decided to go to grad school. I completed my grad work at Clemson University, in South Carolina, and then was able to get the position I have now right out of school.

I don’t know if that really explains why I do what I do, but I’ve kind of been a bit of everything and that’s why I probably couldn’t be a painter, why I’d have a really hard time being a print maker. I’ve been a mechanic and a construction worker. I’ve been all these things that lean towards different materials—assembling things, dealing with space, all that kind of business. A lot of it’s just really enjoying the creative process, but also wanting to get my hands dirty while I do it, and not having limitations on what I get to work with. That’s not saying a painter really has limitations, but they often put them on themselves—sticking with one medium, sticking with a flat surface. I love the possibility that I can paint my sculptures all I want. I don’t know many who feel free to sculpt their paintings. Being a sculptor allows me to be the jack-of-all-trades that I enjoy being.


How does your art relate to or enhance your faith and vice versa?

I do make work that’s really just stuff I enjoy making, and it’s much more aesthetically based than it is content based, but if I were to look at most of my work as a body of work, it would fall into one general category: most of my work is based on the little meaty debate I have in my head between my culture and my religion and how I fit with any of it.

I grew up in Boise, Idaho, where a quarter of the population is Mormon, and I went to school in Utah and was there for about seven years, where everybody on my street was Mormon. Now, here I am in Ashland, Ohio, a little isolated place with a teeny little branch. Everybody seems to have an assignment that puts him or her on the branch council. Going through this, I realized—and this is nothing new, obviously—that there’s an assumed culture, and there’s a certain tradition that comes with it.

There’s doctrine and then there’s the religion. And parts and pieces go into each little area. In my work, I kind of play off those, but I also deal a lot with manipulation and stereotyping. And so sometimes the stereotypes bleed into the religion; sometimes it’s just general stereotyping. My thesis as a grad student was based on the idea that I would get hung up on these little mental arguments, and they would stick with me—as they still do, it’s just the way I am, I’m a critical person, I suppose even kind of a jerk—and so I wrestled with a lot of these things. There’s a positive aspect to how we function as a religion: we don’t get to pick and choose where we go to church, we show up in a community, and where our congregation’s boundaries tell us we’re supposed to go, we go. I don’t know if there’s anybody in the branch here that I would have met or hung out with if it weren’t for the fact that I’m going to the same church as they are. And I think that’s a positive thing. I think that’s how we actually build charity, how we get over ourselves a little bit. So that’s a positive feel.

But on the flipside, there’s generally this expectation that my views are going to conform to jive with the general views of the folks around me. This can be on anything, be it political, be it social, be it religious. And so as I kind of wrestle with what accompanies those assumptions, wondering how much of an argument I might want to have about this or that point of doctrine, about how many times Glenn Beck need to be brought up in Priesthood Executive Committee—do I try to put an end to such discussions, or do I just let it happen? Those sorts of things. But what generally takes place is I let it happen, I bottle it up, and I get mad. Then I think, this is silly, why do I have to feel this? So as part of a cathartic process, I make pieces. When I bring religion into it, it almost always deals with that sort of a situation.


What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an artist so far?

Strictly speaking as an artist, getting into the show in Cleveland is probably the greatest thing. But that’s purely as an artist.

It’s hard to say because I do a lot of different things as an artist, but that’s the one that will sit highest on my resume right now, so that’s a positive thing. Coupled with that, I really enjoy teaching, and I think trying to instill in people an understanding of why I do what I do, and how it might benefit them or how it might benefit society, I’m very proud of those sorts of things.

On the side, as a professor, I work really hard to make connections here in the community. So here I am in this little, depressed community where jobs have gone away, not a whole lot going on, but there’s one particular business that seems to be doing well. They design water park features, and they do it all out of fiberglass. A few years ago, they were looking for someone who could design these features so they could be easily cast. Before, they were working with pipes and corners and things like that, but they wanted to start making actual shells that looked like things, such as animals and airplanes, and I knew how to do that—almost everything they make is stuff that I’ve designed. It’s not stuff that I would put on my artist resume. I’d put that I work with them, but I don’t put images of my crocodile shooting water out of its mouth on my resume.

Granted, those are the challenges that I feel are most difficult for artists to face and feel successful about because of being told what to make. They have to work in a style that may not be their own and yet still make it and feel comfortable laying claim to it. I would have no problem putting my name to probably about half of the projects I’ve worked on. Some of them get changed in post-production, and I’m not as happy with those, but some of the others, you know, I’m happy enough telling people that I designed and built that. But in doing so, I’ve also been able to take students with me, so the students go and they get paid to do it and they get to work in a field that can provides funds for something they could do in the future. It allows them to continue with the creative process, in something that’s just a little bit more commercial. Hopefully it keeps them active in making work and in the creative process.

So it’s hard for me to really judge. Obviously, for me as an artist, the Cleveland show is important. There were plenty of people who applied and only five of us who got in. That’s a big deal for me, but I probably spend more time thinking about the other things.

Considering how many times as artists we get rejected, it’s so much worse than sales. When salesmen are selling something, they’re selling somebody else’s product, but when we go and try to peddle our work, this is us, something we’ve invested in, something we’ve come up with, and we get rejected—all the time. And then we’re forced to turn around and reapply somewhere else the very next minute, constantly believing that our work is good enough for whatever opportunities are out there. And I think that’s one of the most admirable qualities of most artists. I think it’s also why we’re all mildly chronically depressed, but through that we recognize that we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t love it, and we also wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think we had something essential to offer. ❧

Photos courtesy Dan McDonald, Laura Arthur, and Vern Osborne.
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